Utah State senior Jessica Chatman is so grateful she didn’t throw in the towel on her college basketball career.

As the USU women’s basketball team prepares to play its final home games against New Mexico, Chatman, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, recalled how simple it would have been to walk away when times got tough.

“Giving up after BYU could have been really easy. I could have slipped under the radar and no one would have known. After SUU, I could have just graduated and been done,” she said. “But I think for myself, it gave me the satisfaction that I did it and I can do anything I put my mind to. I’m proud of myself that I really pushed through all those five years of a lot of ups and downs.”

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Chatman attributes a big part of her resilience to maturity and lessons learned as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before her college playing days. She is one of only a small number of returned sister missionaries playing college basketball this season.

“I grew up a ton on my mission,” she said. “I gained a lot of life experience out there for those 18 months. Ultimately, that changed my life completely and put a lot of things into perspective. ... With all the changes that happened throughout my career, I relied on that life perspective so many times to get me through the challenges of the college.”

Utah State senior Jessica Chatman (4) smiles during a timeout. Chatman is one of a few Latter-day Saint returned sister missionaries playing college basketball this season. | USU Athletics

Learning to ‘persevere’

As the daughter of former BYU great Jeff Chatman, Jessica Chatman’s dream was to follow in her father’s footsteps as a Cougar. When she signed to play at BYU in high school, her brother Jordan also had plans to play basketball in Provo.

But first Jessica Chatman felt a desire to serve a mission and spent a year and a half in Lansing, Michigan, from 2014-2015.

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Upon her return, Chatman played a year at BYU. But at the end of the season she was informed that her scholarship was being cut.

“That was super hard, honestly devastating,” she said. “I had to grow up a lot — again — pick myself up and work that much harder to prove that I was a good basketball player.”

Former BYU assistant coach Chris Boettcher recruited Chatman to Southern Utah. She redshirted a year per NCAA transfer rules, but before she was eligible to play, Boettcher was fired. She played her sophomore and junior seasons but opted to transfer after graduating.

“I was looking for a coach that just wanted me,” she said. “That sounds cliche, but I just wanted a coach that had recruited me, truly saw what I could do, my talent, and just believed in me.”

Utah State’s Kayla Ard was that coach. Hired in March 2020, Ard was looking to build a program with experienced players. It didn’t take long for her to connect with Chatman. She liked her maturity and felt her mission experience would help her be a leader on the team. Chatman was the first recruit Ard signed for the Aggies.

Utah State senior Jessica Chatman (4) goes for a shot during a game earlier this year. Chatman is one of only a few Latter-day Saint returned sister missionaries playing college basketball this season. | USU Athletics

“She’s a special kid. ... I watched some film on her and fell in love with her game. She didn’t have crazy numbers at Southern Utah but I felt like she would excel in our program, which she has done,” Ard said. “She is the foundation of what this program is going to be in the future.”

Chatman has relished her year at Utah State, serving as a team captain while also pursuing a master’s degree. Her father Jeff summarized her career with the word “perseverance.”

“She had to persevere leaving BYU. She had to persevere playing two years at Southern Utah. Finally, she got to a place where everything clicked for her academically and basketball wise,” Jeff Chatman said. “So perseverance is a big thing.”

Other returned sister missionaries

Unlike men’s basketball, where it’s common to see young men serve two years and return to play college basketball, there aren’t a lot of returned sister missionaries on Division I basketball rosters.

Along with Chatman at Utah State, there’s Tahlia White, a forward at Brigham Young University who served in the Washington Spokane Mission.

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Darri Frandsen, a forward at Southern Utah University, served a mission in Italy.

Jaeden Vaifanua, from Draper, played a year at Wyoming before leaving to serve in Tucson, Arizona. Her mission started in June 2020, according to WyomingNews.com.

“Since I can remember, I knew this is something I have always wanted to do,” Vaifanua said in the article. “It’s hard to step away from basketball, my coaches and my teammates, but I have been waiting since I was really young. … My church and faith mean so much to me, and I want to show people what is most important to me.”

Ella Pope, daughter of BYU men’s coach Mark Pope, was on the roster at Ohio University when she was called on a mission in Ecuador in 2020.

Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, talked about the way Ella Pope included her team in opening her mission call in her April 2020 general conference talk.

The sister experience

It’s been nearly a decade since President Thomas S. Monson announced the age change from 21 to 19 for sister missionaries.

Since then, Jeff Judkins, BYU women’s basketball coach, said he’s had four returned sister missionaries in the program.

One served before joining the program because she was almost 19 years old when she graduated from high school.

One played two years before departing.

One played her entire four-year career before electing to serve.

The fourth played half the year, was injured and opted to go.

“They have all kind of done it a little bit differently,” Judkins said. “I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way. The best way of doing it, if you want to go into mission, I would tell you to go before you play and come back.”

White was the player who left after one year. She suffered a knee injury at the beginning of the season and didn’t play in a single game. As she recovered she felt a desire to serve a mission. Although she had fears and it was hard to leave basketball, peace came as she committed herself to serving a mission.

“I wouldn’t trade my mission for anything.” — Tahlia White

While returning to college basketball hasn’t been easy by any stretch, White said the experience was “1,000% worth it.”

“I wouldn’t trade my mission for anything,” she said.

When asked why more returned sister missionary aren’t playing college basketball, both Judkins and White offered a few thoughts.

It’s hard for players to leave their sport after one or two years. If they serve, sometimes they lose their competitive edge and interest upon their return. Leaving at age 19 can also be tricky because young women become involved in education and other pursuits. Then there’s the obvious reason.

“A lot of them get here and start dating,” Judkins said. “I’ve got three girls on the team that are married and I probably have three or four that get married each year. That kind of takes the mission away a little bit.”

White worried she might lose her competitive edge, but it hasn’t been an issue. She would tell young women that things have a way of working out.

“You can be a great missionary, come home and still be super competitive,” White said. “It doesn’t mean you have to lose your edge or your hunger.”